How to off turn stress in real-time (Calmness System Activation)


You don’t get to avoid stress. But you get to manage it. Pulling that off requires you to take control of your autonomic nervous system.

What to do

Turn off stress in real-time by activating your parasympathetic nervous system (aka calmness system) through vision and breathing.

Why it works

Like a race car, your autonomic nervous system has both a throttle and a brake. The throttle is your sympathetic nervous system, also known as the alertness system. The brake is your parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the calmness system. The faster you want to go in life, the better brakes you need. Why? Because using your brake is key to avoid ending up in a crash (that is, burnout) – or going really, really, slowly. It’s how to prevent acute (good) stress from turning into chronic (bad) stress. The quickest methods for using that brake involve your visual and breathing systems.

First, as captured in the proverb “out of sight, out of mind”, your mental focus follows your visual focus. When we’re stressed, our pupils dilate, our field of vision narrows, and we see things in sharper relief, while everything else becomes blurry. It’s like in portrait mode on a smartphone, as Prof. Andrew Huberman explained in an interview. This is called “focal vision”. As it turns out, you can use that association the other way around: by getting into “panoramic vision”, you can activate your calmness system.

Second, how you breathe has a powerful impact on how stressed you feel. However, it’s not about taking a deep breath. That’s precisely the opposite of what you should do when stressed out. If you want to activate your calmness system, you need to exhale more than you inhale (here’s why). In short, when you’re feeling stressed throughout the day, you can calm down in real-time by using your visual and breathing systems. Here are three brutally-effective methods for pulling that off.

How to do it

1) Panoramic vision. When feeling very stressed, view the horizon – or look at something 20 feet away – for 60 seconds to get into panoramic vision. Dr. Adam Gazzaley (pictured above) and his co-author Dr. Larry Rosen recommend something similar for alleviating exhaustion (and eye strain) in their excellent book The Distracted Mind.

2) Optic flow. Take a 5-20-minute walk around your office or block. Walking puts you into optic flow (i.e., visual images passing you by). The associated eye movements produce sustained panoramic vision. You’ll thus put on that brake – and keep stress in check as you go. Also, stay away from your phone during your walk. When you’re stressed, more focal vision is the last thing you need. Even better, leave your phone at your desk.

3) Exhale-emphasized breathing. The best way to activate your brake in real-time is the physiological sigh. Start by inhaling deeply through the nose for two seconds. Then, add a second inhale through the nose on top of the first one for one second. Lastly, exhale fully through the mouth for six seconds. Like other exhale-emphasized breathing methods, you’ll activate your calmness system in real-time. The second inhale also lets your lungs release much more carbon dioxide during the subsequent exhale. Thus, 1-3 physiological sighs effectively and quickly activate your brake.

Here’s a challenge for you. Over the next three days, use your brake at least once a day. Do so by

  • taking a 5-minute walk.
  • performing several physiological sighs. 
  • or combining the two for maximum effect. 

I was as skeptical as you probably are right now. Yet, this works like a charm. If you want to go fast in life without ending up in a crash, start using your brake today.